It was quite easy to familiarize ourselves with the Indonesian language, at least as far as the culinary art is concerned. Several simple words, such as nasi (rice), mie (noodles), goreng (fried), rebus (cooked), bakar (grilled), sambal (paste, sauce), telur (egg), ikan (fish), udang (prawn), ayam (chicken), sayur (vegetables), etc. were enough to achieve an introductory level of knowledge. Combine one with another and you get the names of popular dishes: ayam goreng, udang rebus or ikan bakar, to name just a few. Gula means sugar and gula-gula are sweets and so we’ve reached desserts… As there is no inflection (that we know of), we felt encouraged to build simple sentences during our lazy time at the seaside, commenting on the reality around us (in this case mostly kambing makan ikan aka “goat eats fish”). On the other hand, Indonesian cuisine abounds in innumerable rice dishes with additions on the side (nasi this, nasi that). Most of them, despite our (not so) earnest efforts, we were not able to tell apart.
Obviously, taste is an individual thing, so this is our subjective take on the best and worst Indonesian dishes. We encourage you to go and check by yourself. Let’s start with complaints so we can finish in ecstasy!
BUTTERED AND FRIED EVERYTHING PLUS FRIED CHICKEN
It seems there is no such food item in Indonesia that seems inappropriate to be breaded in batter and deep fried. Eggs, meats, offal, bananas, cassava, tofu… everything tastes almost the same and is usually made in advance. Coated stuff soaked in oil served at room temperature? No, thank you. As far as chicken is concerned, it is the least favorite kind of meat for both of us, so we won’t tell you much about ayam goreng – maybe the most popular dish of all.
The famous cuisine from West Sumatra, which became popular around the entire country and beyond. Behind the restaurants’ front windows you can see pyramids of plates presenting available dishes. I will forever remember the picture of empty, dark streets illuminated by the windows full of piled up pottery, I’ve seen when were riding through Padang at night. When you sit down, lots of small plates with several dishes arrive on the table. You only pay for what you’ve touched. The dishes are prepared in the morning, stay all day without refrigeration and are usually served without heating. Often, in this kind of restaurants, we were very disappointed – both with taste and freshness. There is one dish though – called beef rendang – that saved the honor of Padang cuisine for us (more on this later).
GADO-GADO (THE UGLY)
Learning about the ingredients of this salad I was sure I’m gonna love it. Sauce made of peanuts which I adore. Cooked vegetables that I love. Hard-boiled eggs I won’t say no to. Add some sprouts, raw veggies, and krupuk crisps (resembling shrimp crisps) and voila! The whole is one of the least attractive-looking dishes in the world, though for us it was not really the main complaint. What’s worse, it’s that the taste is also one big con-fusion. I apologize to Indonesians, but this national pride is hard for me to swallow. We didn’t try many gado-gados, so I decided to recreate the recipe at home, thinking I will find a way for this combination of ingredients to finally click together. It didn’t.
ABC – CRUSHED ICE IS WHAT’S FOR DESSERT
Ais kacang is usually called ABC (an abbreviation of Air Batu Campur, meaning “mixed ice”). Heaps of crushed ice drenched in technicolor syrups with some fresh or preserved fruit. End of story. Long time ago, it was only ice with red beans which evolved over time into more varied forms.
FRIED RICE aka NASI GORENG
The simplest comfort food. Driven by the vegetable oil phobia, I was steering clear of this dish for some time. Finally I gave in, because, damn, it’s just that good! Heap of rice fried with eggs, finely chopped vegetables, possibly some meat, sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. Trivial, greasy and yummy. The greasiness is balanced by the addition of some fresh greens. On the top of that some of that delicious fried shallots sprinkle…
NASI LEMAK, NASI UDUK
We’ve been writing about nasi lemak while in Malaysia. Simple pleasures. Rice cooked in coconut milk with spices, some fried anchovies called ikan bilis, peanuts, sambal. In a loaded version you can also get hard-boiled eggs, cucumber slices and meat. Often wrapped up in banana leaf. A must!
GRILLED FISH, SAMBAL AND RICE
Ikan bakar! At the seaside, freshly caught, covered in sweet and spicy marinade and put on a barbecue. Served with spicy sambal. Any sambal, for that matter, is great in Indonesia!
FISH IN BANANA LEAVES
Fish, herbs and spices. Wrapped up and steamed. Wonderful. We’ve also tried a similar dish with small poultry (a pigeon???) served the same way and it was also delicious. A must!
The most famous representative of the un-favorite Padang cuisine. Popular also in Malaysia and Singapore, it originated from Western Sumatra and the Mingkabau ethnic group (which we’ve mentioned before). Beef cooked for hours on end in coconut milk and spices. Dry but delicious. I have to finally cook my own.
We like fermented soy. Slices of fried tempeh appeared in almost any rice-and-toppings dish on Java. At home I soak them in soy sauce with powdered ginger and fry. So good!
LIQUID FRUIT AKA SHAKE
Nowhere in Southeast Asia was the choice of fruit shakes as wide as in Indonesia. I loved the sweet and sour pineapple shakes the most, they are especially tasty, juicy and ripe here… Marcin, on the other hand, was a devoted fan of mango. Perfect!